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Why Doesn't Intelligent Design Identify the Designer?

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A friendly scientist contacted me recently with a question about intelligent design and specifically the identity of the designer. He believed that the ID movement has "adopted a policy of carefully avoiding explicit identification of the source of ID as the God of the Bible, or any other specific deity" and that this policy "follows from the cultural state of affairs which tolerates nothing having to do with biblical religion." He was concerned that our approach was simply a legal or political strategy, rather than one driven by the search for truth. I replied, respectfully, that his description does not accurately reflect the thinking of the ID movement.

Yes, he is correct that ID does not identify the designer. But this refusal is principled, not some kind of rhetorical or legal "strategy" or politically motivated "policy." It stems from a desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of scientific inquiry, rather than inject religious discussions about theological questions into science.

And it's not the case that these theological questions can be addressed by science but ID avoids them out of a desire to stay away from theological issues. Rather, ID does not identify the designer because given our present knowledge and technology, there is no known scientific method of doing so. Because ID sticks to scientifically tractable questions, it stays silent on such matters. This is a crucial point to appreciate if you want to understand why ID doesn't identify the designer: it's not because ID takes a scientific approach and science arbitrarily avoids such questions; it's because ID takes a scientific approach and science has no means of addressing such questions.

Thomas Woodward, an ID historian and scholar of rhetoric, explains the principled reasons why the current biological evidence allows us to detect intelligent design, but is insufficient to allow us to identify the designer:

There is no "Made by Yahweh" engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor -- the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.

(Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, p. 15 (Baker Books, 2006).)

In other words, the empirical data -- such as the information-rich, integrated complexity of the flagellar machine -- may indicate that the flagellum arose by intelligent design. But that same empirical data does not inform us whether the intelligence that designed the flagellum was Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other source of intelligent agency. There is no known way to use such empirical data to determine the nature or identity of the designer, and since ID is based solely upon empirical data, the scientific theory of ID must remain silent on such questions.

Stephen Meyer likewise explains:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the "supernatural" realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009), pp. 428-429.)

As Meyer suggests, ID is primarily an historical science. It uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies what it has learned to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. ID starts with observations showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. As one ID textbook explains, scientists have "uniform sensory experience" with intelligent causes (i.e. humans), so intelligence is an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the "supernatural" cannot be observed, and thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to the supernatural. If the intelligence responsible for life were supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.

The point of all this is that ID's non-identification of the designer isn't a "policy" or a "strategy," but rather it's something that just flows out of ID's choice to take a scientific approach, rather than a theological one. None of this is new for the ID movement. In fact a review of early ID literature shows that this has been ID's approach from the very beginning. Some people see ID's scientific approach that doesn't address religious questions as a weakness, but I see it as a strength.

In any case, the scientist I referred to earlier replied very graciously to my "patient clarification of the principled position of ID" and said:

I agree completely with everything you said, and I'm sorry for seeming to put words in the mouth of the ID movement which inaccurately portray the intentions of Discovery Institute. As I reflect on it, I believe that I was reacting somewhat to atheists' response and mischaracterization of the aims and approach of ID.
I couldn't really blame this scientist for his misconceptions. Critics of ID have frequently sought to mislead the public on this and other points. And in that they've enjoyed much success. A lesson here might be that if you want to know what proponents of an idea really think, it's always best to go to the source.

Image: � Jack Gerhardsen / Dollar Photo Club.